I’ll confess: I’m addicted to my Fitbit. I started wearing it every day in July, and days when I don’t reach my activity goals are extremely upsetting. Weekends at home prove the most detrimental to my efforts to reach 10,000 steps a day. I find great joy in meeting my weekly exercise goals. Surely my wearable tech must be helping me become a healthier, more balanced person. Right?
According to Aaron E. Carroll and The New York Times, the evidence against the effectiveness of wearable fitness trackers in making people more fit is strong. Earlier studies about pedometer and fitness tracker use were inconclusive, but the IDEA trial, published last year, found that people who used fitness trackers lost significantly less weight than people who did not. Carroll compares fitness technology to fad supplements and diet pills, which go far to market themselves as miracle cures for extra weight with very little work done beforehand to prove their effectiveness.
These results are jarring for devotees to Fitbit and Apple Watch trackers like me, who spend lots of time and energy competing with their peers, participating in challenges and meeting their goals. Surely the social aspect of fitness helps people to motivate themselves and others to be more active and be more accountable for their own habits. One’s goals when adopting a fitness tracker must also be taken into consideration. Do people want to track their activity so that they know their habits and can improve them? Do they want to lose weight? How do these goals differ?
I would argue that, while fitness trackers may not be helpful for weight loss, they are helpful tools for understanding and shaping one’s habits. For example, someone who works from home or sits in a cubicle all day may not realize the extent of her inactivity. A fitness tracker may be a helpful tool for contextualizing and expressing in concrete terms the effects of one’s lifestyle. Although hundreds of dollars may be a steep price to pay for a tool that has not been linked to weight loss, the benefits of fitness trackers often go beyond step counting. Many have heart monitors, which can help track health data over a period of time. Some use Bluetooth to connect with users’ phones so that text and caller identification come through the device.
Perhaps a $140 pedometer is a useless investment, but a piece of wearable technology that tracks health habits, has an interface for diet tracking, promotes goal setting and syncs to general phone functions is more substantial than a simple pedometer. Fitness trackers may help families and groups of friends enter into conversations about their own lifestyles and the impact of sedentary habits on how they feel. Of course, the trackers could also lead to fierce competition over steps.
One should take care to make sure that a fitness tracker does not take over one’s life, but engaging responsibly with the devices and understanding how the technology fits into one’s lifestyle can be helpful and motivating, even if the correlation between fitness tracker use and weight loss is weak.